The Conversation: A Mentor-Mentee Duo Reflects on Their Calling to Education and What They've Learned from Each Other

Winter 2019

By Rebecca Scherr

In the 1990s, David Ticchi gave Ed McCarthy a John Steinbeck quote about teaching. It’s still on McCarthy’s bulletin board at St. Sebastian’s School (MA), where he teaches English and coaches three sports teams. The two have known each other for 42 years and have been friends and colleagues for 28 years, but it almost never was. Ticchi, who is blind, never thought he’d go into education; in the mid-1960s there were visual-acuity requirements for public school teachers. He went on to study economics at the College of the Holy Cross, then was accepted at Cornell Law School and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, but he really wanted to get a job. In 1967, with the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, Ticchi joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, teaching English and history and coaching baseball at St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I loved teaching. I enjoyed being with young people, so I decided to go into education,” says Ticchi, who got his master’s and doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The stories and experiences he collected along his journey have influenced McCarthy, whom he met as a seventh-grader at F.A. Day Junior High School in Newton, Massachusetts. In this edited exchange, the educators reflect on their calling to education and what they’ve learned from each other.
Ticchi: In 1970–1971, I was doing an internship at F.A. Day Junior High School. I was enjoying it very much, but I was starting to look for work again, which was difficult for me. One Friday afternoon, the principal called me into his office. I always tell people—even when you’re 25 or 26 years old—when the principal calls you into his or her office on a Friday afternoon at 2 o’clock, you’re not thinking happy thoughts. We chatted a little bit about the Red Sox, who weren’t too good that year, and that didn’t last long, and then he told me there would be an opportunity to teach seventh-grade English at the school. And that’s where you enter, Ed.
McCarthy: We’re talking 42 years ago. My sister comes home and tells us about her new teacher. “He’s blind and he’s very smart and he plays basketball and he’s out at practices,” she says. And I’m thinking, that couldn’t be. As a seventh-grader, I ran with some sports guys and cutups, and sure enough, the toughest kid in school says to me one day, “I got in trouble in Mr. Ticchi’s class today for chewing gum. I was sitting in the back row of the class, and from up front of the classroom, he smelled my gum!” And so there were these myths around you, but when I think about why I wanted to be a teacher, I go back to you.

Twenty-eight years ago, I graduated from college. I had a math degree. I was certified in middle school math, upper school math, middle school English, upper school English, and I didn’t know what path I wanted to pursue. Another teacher suggested I first become a substitute teacher. The school system was trying to hire responsible people who had open minds, who wanted to teach any subject and sub every day. That was the beginning of our time together.
Ticchi: As part of my doctoral work at Harvard, I produced two films that ran on PBS, A Blind Teacher in a Public School and Out of Sight. So I was finishing those in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and a colleague asked, “Are you going to come back into education?” He said, “Why don’t you come to the high school and maybe sub three or four days a week?”

That’s where we connected. I was asked to direct a ninth- and 10th-grade program, which was for students who had various challenges inside and outside of school, and Ed, you were an assistant in all the classes. These were kids who weren’t necessarily all on IEPs. Some of them had truancy issues, and some of them came from other schools. The program was to mainstream them back into the high school. You and I connected on that stuff.
McCarthy: Yeah, it was great work. I saw how incredibly organized you were, how you took profound pride in details, clarity of communication, respect of other faculty, respect of parents. You led me. You taught me how to teach—not how to teach Shakespeare, but how to treat people, how to consider the social-emotional individual skills needed to work in a school. Your success called me to work harder as a son, husband, father, teacher, and coach. As Bill Burke, my headmaster at St. Sebastian’s, says, quoting Abraham Lincoln, “I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.” Through all of my trials throughout the years, a phone call with you—whether I was at the Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School (MA), The Fessenden School (MA), St. Paul’s School (MD), or at St. Sebastian’s—your modeling of courage and competence reminded me to persevere.
Ticchi: That feels good, and the program succeeded. But there have always been some faculty who had their doubts about a blind person teaching.
McCarthy: I didn’t know that.
Ticchi: One of my principals had some contact from a parent saying she was concerned about her son having a blind teacher. I think what really helped me overcome that was working with the students at the school in New Mexico, working with welfare mothers, all these kids and people facing adversity. My heart is open to them. My philosophy in education has always been to never give up on anyone. You never give up on a student. I remember that you, Ed, were so enthusiastic, energetic, and caring. I remember we talked about time management, and there are only 24 hours in a day, so there’s the danger of burnout. And as you know, those kids we had in our program, some of their lives outside of school were challenging, and thus the students required a lot of our patience and energy.
McCarthy: Oh boy, challenging. I think that this is where we kind of harmonized, because you know I grew up in Newton, a very affluent place. My parents weren’t educated. There were times when we didn’t have a car or many other resources. There were times when I felt like an outsider because of that.

But you taught me these ideas of respecting others, and as teacher, being captain of the classroom team—we are a team. These were messages and themes that I had in the beginning. I didn’t have a mentor telling me, “You’re in control, don’t tolerate this.” So my philosophy has evolved out of that. You know I don’t get out of bed for the money. I don’t get out of bed to get a winning season. I owe it to my role models to be great.

I remember when you visited St. Sebastian’s a couple years ago. That was probably the best day teaching I’ve had in a couple years. Kids still come back and say, “Mr. McCarthy, you got to do that every year. You need to get Mr. Ticchi in.” It was because of your character.     

Ticchi: I appreciate your compliments. I’m proud of my career. But I didn’t do it alone. The teacher and the person I became is a combination of people whom I have met and that I’ve learned from and that I’ve tried to adopt into my own personality. But we’re all kind of the cumulative impact of many people.

One thing that’s important for teachers and future teachers to realize is that, in the classroom, we have the opportunity to impact people’s lives and to inculcate and foster and nurture certain values.

I can remember the first parent evening when I was teaching seventh-grade English at F.A. Day, white cane, standing before those parents. At one level, I’m talking to them about the curriculum, and on another level, I’m thinking to myself, these parents of little 12- or 13-year-olds think their child is one of the most important human beings walking the face of the Earth. I have an enormous responsibility, not only to teach them English but also to nurture some values in my classroom: respect, honesty, responsibility, fairness, and so on. And I don’t know if you recall this. When we were working in that program together, we had a homeroom.
McCarthy: I remember.
Ticchi: When we took over the program, the room wasn’t very neat, and we talked to the kids about keeping it neat and why we must do so. The students would say, “We got custodians, so we don’t have to do that,” or “Are you going to pay us?”

I said: “You know about keeping things neat—we are human adjectives.” Well, as you know, I teach English. “What do adjectives have to do with keeping the room clean?”

“You know what a noun is?” I said, “Well, an adjective modifies a noun. It can make it better. It can describe it. We are human modifiers. And anywhere we walk or speak, or any human being or other place, should be better off from having been there. We are human modifiers.”

I really believe that. A weed in the garden, we should pick it up. Say hello to someone, do an act of kindness.
McCarthy: David, I remember you imparting your conviction that teaching was a profoundly important vocation, and art, and life mission. I’m looking at this Steinbeck quote here: “It is customary for adults to forget how hard and dull school is. The learning by memory all the basic things one must know is the most incredible and unending effort. … School is not so easy and it is not for the most part very fun, but then, if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher. … I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” Thank you.

Do You Have a Conversation to Share?

Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Do you know of—or are you a part of—a great student–teacher duo? We want to hear about it. Send a brief description to [email protected], and we’ll follow up.
Rebecca Scherr

Rebecca Scherr is senior editor/writer at NAIS.